I want to follow up on yesterday’s post with the next part of the Mass commentary. There is a unity between what I wrote about yesterday—the impossibility of receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin—and what comes next in the Mass.
After the Lord’s Prayer, the praying of which signifies the fundamental union with God made possible by Jesus Christ which will be brought to perfection in the rite of communion, comes the ritual Sign of Peace in which we express to those immediately around us some gesture of peace and good will.
This has rich scriptural significance. We can think of the Gospel passage where the Lord tells us to be reconciled with our neighbor before we can offer our gifts on the altar.
The Eucharist not only brings to perfection our union with God, but also brings to perfection our union with one another in the communion of Christ’s Body, the Church. And as we cannot receive communion if we are in a state of mortal sin (and hence not in union with God to start with), so we cannot receive communion if we are not in union with the Catholic Church, either.
This is a painful subject—disunity always is, isn’t it? But we cannot wish painful subjects away. Now there is a difference between these two types of union. The question of being in a state of sin is something only the person can answer—conscience is inviolable, and only God and the soul can make that discernment.
Union with the Church, on the other hand, is a matter of the outer forum, visible to anyone who knows the facts of a situation. If a person has made choices in their life that remove them from communion with the Catholic Church, not only should they themselves not receive the Eucharist, but the pastors of the Church have a duty to inform them of this fact.
So, someone who is simply not Catholic, but belongs to some other religion, or who has left the Church for some other system of belief and way of life. People who have made moral decisions that publicly declare that they are not bound by or under the authority of the Catholic Church in any regard. Couples co-habitating without any form of marriage, or people doing intrinsically evil things in their work lives (the Mafia, for example, or the owner of a strip club). People who not only struggle with a homosexual orientation but who are publicly living as gay men or women in a same-sex relationship. People who have taken a public stand opposing the Church in its moral or dogmatic teachings—politicians, say, advocating laws that directly oppose the moral teachings of the Church.
And yes, (since this is the controversy of the day) people who have not only been divorced but have entered into a second marriage without having gone through the annulment process for their original one. Any one of these people in any of these categories may or may not be in a state of subjective sin—I would never dream of flatly stating that—but they have indeed objectively removed themselves from the communion the Church.
This is painful, yes. We are all free to choose what we will believe and what we will do in our lives. But our choices bear consequences. If I freely choose to, say, write a blog post where I flatly deny some basic matter of Christian doctrine, I am indeed free to do so. But I am not free to do so and then continue to exercise my ministry as a Roman Catholic priest. Freedom yes, but freedom without consequences? No.
So if someone has chosen to reject Catholicism, they may do so. But they really must not present themselves in the communion line, then. Reception of the Eucharist is not only about our union with God; it is also about our union with Christ’s Body on earth, the Church.
It is not a question of having to be some perfect Catholic who gets every answer right on a catechism test and never asks a question or struggles with a doctrine. Of course not. It is a matter of the public and manifest stands we have taken in our words and in our actions.
For example, you can really struggle with the Church’s flat statement that sex outside of marriage is wrong. You can not be at all sure that’s quite correct, and still choose not to move in with your girlfriend because you nonetheless want to live your life as a Catholic. But if you and your girlfriend do move in together, you have made a choice to publicly reject the Catholic faith. See the difference?
And so in the Mass before we go to receive communion we ritually express all this, first in our praying to God as our Father and then turning to one another to express our unity as a body of believers. And only then, in a spirit of deep humility and knowledge of our unworthiness, do we come forward to receive the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, at which point the Mass and all it has signified becomes our own mystery, our own life, and we are drawn into it in fullness and in truth.
Let us pray to receive the Eucharist knowing what we are doing and being vigilant to receive it worthily and well, so that it’s fruits may be shown forth in our lives.